When Scotch Plains, New Jersey, resident Keith Gilman noticed the month of April approaching, both he and an intellectual property firm where he serves as managing partner considered a matter to devote the month to: Arab American innovators.
“There’s so much history on the Arab American side,” Gilman tells TODAY.com from his Cranford, New Jersey, office, “and it goes back where there were inventions and advances that some don’t even get credit for.”
His consideration did not involve obtaining a patent, licensing an invention or litigating a product, which his team at Lerner David address and pursue. Instead, it is to recognize a legacy, as he had done for women in March and African Americans in February during notable heritage months, with a social media campaign highlighting Arab Americans, like the late cardiovascular surgeon and pioneer Dr. Michael Ellis DeBakey.
DeBakey, a Lebanese American, is credited with performing the first successful coronary bypass operation, in 1964, and the first multiple-organ transplant four years later.
He is also the first to successfully implant a left ventricular bypass pump, in 1966. He served as a presidential adviser on health care policy, performed over 60,000 operations and trained thousands of surgeons.
President Joe Biden said the "Arab American story is the American story" when he issued a proclamation in honor of Arab American Heritage Month in late March.
“I call upon all Americans to learn more about the history, culture, and achievements of Arab Americans and to observe this month with appropriate programs and activities,” said Biden, the first U.S. president to declare April as National Arab American Heritage Month.
That same sentiment was shared in 2003 by the late Arab American author Elizabeth Boosahda in “Arab-American Faces and Voices,” when she wrote about the need to cover this part of history.
“Documenting their history is both a tribute to their resourcefulness, determination, and courage and an attempt to bring into clearer focus the multicultural history of the Americas,” Boosahda wrote.
This month prompted the American Psychological Association, which represents over 146,000 members, to host a public webinar on Arab American identity and its impact on the practice of psychology as a part of a number of webinars delving into people's cultural upbringings.
“We have a lot of research that demonstrates when people have a positive cultural identity, it helps with a sense of self-esteem, a sense of belonging, and community and connection,” Dr. Thema Bryant, APA president, tells TODAY.com.
Dr. Germine Awad, an Egyptian American psychologist who studies disparities in health and education, participated in the webinar and discussed issues facing Arab American communities, including how the U.S. census categorizes them.
“Because Arab and MENA folks are currently categorized as white on federal forms, and therefore, their data is not disaggregated outside of the white category, it’s actually masking disparities between white and Black folks, white and Asian folks, white and Latinx folks, white and Indigenous folks, so it actually masks disparities for all groups,” Awad, president of the American Arab, Middle Eastern, and North African Psychological Association (AMENA-Psy), tells TODAY.com from Ann Arbor, Michigan.
In Biden's proclamation, the president mentioned measures taken to prevent "hate-based threats, bullying and harassment" targeting these communities and to explore a new identity category on the census “to ensure that Arab Americans are seen, valued, consulted, and properly considered as new policy is made.”
“It’s better to not be ignorant about the presence of a community in the U.S. that doesn’t get very much attention except for when it’s negative, and so I think it’s important to learn about all groups,” Awad said.
Matthew Jaber Stiffler is the research and content manager at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, which he said is the only Arab American museum in the United States dedicated to preserving historical contributions of Arab Americans since the late 1880s.
“There’s a lot of stereotypes, and it’s a month for us to focus and make sure that we’re sharing the true experiences of our community in as many different ways as possible and working with organizations and other communities across the country,” Stiffler tells TODAY.com.
Across social media, there are various examples of stories of belonging in honor of this month, including from first-generation Lebanese American Mohamad Jaafar, who told of the philanthropic contributions of the Lebanese Syrian Ladies' Society of Boston from the early 1900s as part of a video series.
“A lot of it was focused on giving support to communities back home, greater Syria, and supporting families through the effects of World War I, but also eventually shifting their focus to causes here in the United States in their backyard,” Jaafar, a communications specialist with the Center for Arab American Philanthropy in Dearborn, tells TODAY.com.
And there was TikTok user Amal, also a Lebanese American, who underscored the importance of authors through her curated book list.
“What it means to me is being able to finally celebrate parts of myself that I maybe struggled with growing up, like feeling I’m different, or maybe I’m too Arab for non-Arab Americans, that I’m too American for Arabs and feeling like there’s two different identities that I have,” Amal, who asked that her last name not be mentioned, tells TODAY.com from Toledo, Ohio.
"But putting it together, Arab American, and being able to celebrate it and be like, this is who I am, these are people that represent me, these are people that are a part of my culture and heritage," she said.
It’s what made Hoda Rifai-Bashjawish, a Syrian American intellectual property lawyer, want to write a LinkedIn post about her identity for the first time following the decision by her employer, Lerner David, to highlight her ethnic background.
“It was actually brought to me,” Rifai-Bashjawish said. “So, I was given the option to nominate a few Arab American inventors or innovators myself that I wanted to see highlighted for the firm.”
“So, to even have that as a possibility that someone would even care to celebrate our heritage is pretty meaningful to me,” she said.